In my last column, I suggested my fave resources for indie authors who want to ace self-editing. This time, though, I’m going a little bit deeper. These grammar books (all available from Amazon and other online booksellers) speak to the more experienced writer who’s looking for help with their craft, or for information about grammar myths, or for more detailed discussion of grammar and syntax.
Grammar Snobs Are Everywhere
But first things first. Grammar, usage, syntax. Building blocks of writing (even if it’s bad, it’s still got grammar, usage, and syntax). And choices involving these three things often get writers into hot water, because someone somewhere—like a reviewer, perhaps—takes issue with the choices the writers make. If you’d like help making the best choices, those that will keep you from being roasted over a reviewer’s hibachi, then you’re looking for June Casagrande’s Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs—Even if You’re Right. (Why are “by,” “the,” and “if” not capitalized? Because in the style I follow, tiny words like those are lowercased unless they are the first word in a title or subtitle. It’s a style thing. Seriously.)
Each little chapter in Mortal Syntax begins with the usage in question and is followed by a short statement on its correctness. Here are the first three. “I feel bad. This usage is: Correct (yes, really).” “I feel good. This usage is: Perfectly acceptable.” “I feel well. This usage is: Also correct.” Now, maybe that’s enough for you, and you won’t read any further in the text. But if you want to know the whys and wherefores, you’ll find Casagrande’s explanations in simple language, often with a healthy dose of snark or sarcasm, whichever is best applied. Like this:
“Someone who thinks ‘I feel good’ is universally wrong is likely the victim of some dust-covered relic of an English teacher who hasn’t opened a dictionary since they were written with dodo feathers.” I didn’t realize she was in class with me when I had Mrs. Capps for a teacher. Mrs. Capps was a staunch supporter of tombstone rules, and we all suffered for it.
I said “little chapter,” because they are. Sometimes one page, often three pages. Very easy to consume. If the usage is questionable, she’ll tell you. If it’s just plain wrong, she’ll tell you. If it’s all right but likely to raise hackles, she’ll tell you. And then she’ll let you decide whether it’s a hill you want to die on. (Yes, you can end a sentence with a preposition. It’s legal.)
Small But Mighty Grammar Tome
What if you’re looking for a small book, say, a little over 200 pages, approximately 7 inches by 5 inches and about 9/16 of an inch thick, to help you with the art and craft of writing powerful prose?
Again, I point you to a book from Casagrande, this one called It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences. (You’re aware, I’m sure, that “grammar checkers” often flag Dickens’s prose as flawed. It ain’t perfect, but the man has a serious personal style.) Yes, there’s grammar, but I promise it’s not scary—not like the tomes from Oxford or Cambridge or Longman. Here are a few chapter titles to give you a taste.
“Words Gone Wild: Sentences That Say Nothing (or Worse)”
“Words Gone Mild: Choosing Specific Words Over Vague Ones”
“The Writing Was Ignored by the Reader: Passives”
“The Being and the Doing Are the Killing of Your Writing: Nominalizations”
“On Breaking the Rules: When to Can the Canons”
You’ll find plenty of examples, from authors like Cormac McCarthy and Neil Gaiman. Casagrande’s signature writing style infuses every page, making the material pleasant (some might even say delightful) to read. Should your sentences be short or long? Well, the answer is “it depends.” I know, that’s the answer no one likes, but it’s true, and Casagrande tells you why. She also reminds us that the Reader, with a capital R, has a lot of power when it comes to saying whether prose is effective. Did that sentence work for you? You’re the Reader. You get to answer that.
About Craft and Art
Three appendices cover grammar, punctuation, and oft-confused words (homophones, mostly). Why is grammar an appendix? Because the meat of this book is about craft and art, not basics. If you need a quick refresher, the appendix is a few page flips away.
One more from Casagrande will be perfect for those of you who want to dig into grammar without a lot of expense. Her latest is The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know. From the introduction:
“It’s real grammar, the kind that you’d otherwise need a linguistics degree to acquire.”
And it is. And you don’t need that degree. It’s in plain English, like all her other work. She goes on:
“But it’s designed specifically for word nerds who find that learning grammar when it’s done just right, can be a real joy.”
If that description fits you, you’re in for a treat.
Moving on from Casagrande’s excellent work, I’ll recommend a classic in the “grammar self-help” category: Patricia O’Conner’s equally excellent Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. More than one of the quoted reviews in the front matter of my copy (the third edition) say in so many words “the best thing to come along since Strunk and White.” I cannot disagree. Like Casagrande’s, O’Conner’s writing is highly accessible, with a healthy infusion of wink-wink-nudge-nudge for the reader. Here are a few chapter titles to give you a taste.
“Woe Is I: Therapy for Pronoun Anxiety”
“Verbal Abuse: Words on the Endangered List”
“Comma Sutra: The Joy of Punctuation”
“The Living Dead: Let Bygone Rules Be Gone” (Remember Mrs. Capps? This one’s for her.)
The Reader is Always Right
Her final chapter, “Saying Is Believing: How to Write What You Mean,” like Casagrande’s book on craft and art, talks about the reader’s power. “The reader is always right. Chances are, if something you’re reading doesn’t make sense, it’s not your fault—it’s the writer’s.” She points out that unlike grammar, writing gracefully has no rules. Suggestions, sure; guidelines, of course. But not rules. She goes on to list fifteen of those guidelines that will help you, the writer, ensure that you’re saying what you mean and that the reader will grasp it readily.
So now you have a list of books that will help you with your writing. I hope that you’ll find one or two of these to your liking. My clients certainly are interested in learning more about the nuts and bolts of grammar and usage, if only to reduce the number of corrections I make. It’s a good thing I don’t charge by the error. Er, I mean hour. 😉
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